The eyes have it - for now
As surveillance cameras proliferate, a band of skeptics is questioning the social impact of all this watching.
NEW YORK — STANDING ON A TRAFFIC island in the middle of Times Square, Bill Brown might as well be on stage.
TV cameras sweep the street to film lead-ins for news shows; security cameras protect store entrances; Web cameras focus out on the street so tourists can wave to friends and family back home via the Internet. Since the devices are often hidden or disguised, it takes several seconds for his small tour group to pick them out.
On a suspected police camera that hangs overhead, Mr. Brown slaps on a "You are being watched" sticker and defiantly reads the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause...."
Score a small and purely symbolic victory for one of the biggest underdog movements in America. Even as homeowners gleefully wire up their homes with inexpensive Web cams, even as employers put up closed-circuit TV and cities install surveillance equipment on everything from traffic intersections to school buses, a small group of skeptics is beginning to question the effects of all this technology.
Of course, after recent terrorist attacks and sniper shootings, those leading the backlash risk being drowned out by catcalls from an edgy public. On the other hand, they're tapping into deep pools of public suspicion about surveillance.
On the face of things, the new invasion of electronic eyes looks different from George Orwell's nightmare. It comes mostly from private sources, not government.
But skeptics' concern centers on fundamental social issues that sound all too Orwellian: the loss of privacy and the erosion of social trust.
They ask: Will you trust your neighbor in the 21st century? Or in putting up a security camera - just to make sure - are we somehow pulling out an essential thread of the social fabric?
"It seems that we indeed trust no one," writes William Staples in his recent book, "Everyday Surveillance." " 'Just put up the camera,' [authorities] say, and the problems will go away. In the case of the school bus, for example, once the camera is in place, no one has to bother teaching children why they should behave, it's enough just to get them to do it. This begs the question, how will they act when they are not under the gaze of the camera?"
No one knows how many surveillance cameras sweep public space in the United States, but experts agree the number is rising. Sales of closed-circuit TV systems grew faster last year than those of any other electronic security product, according to a dealer survey by Security Sales & Integration magazine in Torrance, Calif. Here in Times Square, perhaps the nation's most monitored public area, the number of cameras has more than tripled in four years, according to Brown, to 258 from 75.
Another reason for the expansion: falling costs. "I don't think people realize how easy it is - and cheap - to buy a camera, put it on the Internet, and watch," says Michael Naimark, another skeptic of video surveillance. "I am concerned that we're going to put up large-scale surveillance [systems] too quickly."
That's why, as a kind of civil-disobedience manual for the electronic age, he has published "How to ZAP a Camera" (www.naimark.net/projects/zap-/howto.html). The Internet report details his experiments with lasers and cameras in Japan. Using something as simple as a laser pointer, he has temporarily disabled video cameras.
One unaffiliated website actually carries directions on ways to destroy and disable cameras. Another site (www.appliedautonomy.com/isee) from an art, technology, and activism collective called the Institute for Applied Autonomy allows users to find "routes of least surveillance" through Manhattan.
Mr. Naimark's point, however, is to force people to think more deeply about the social effects of security cameras and, peacefully, to register their protest. "It's not so much a case of surveillance cameras as who has access to them, who controls representation" of individuals, such as merging a photo of someone's face with a photo of someone else's body, he says. "I don't think there are simple answers."
Take traffic cameras, the kind that snap photos of cars running red lights. The technology captures license-plate numbers, and then motorists get tickets by mail. By some accounts, the system makes intersections safer.
In five of six California cities that installed the cameras, for example, the number of traffic accidents fell between 3 percent and 21 percent, according to a state auditor's report this summer. When California stopped using its traffic cameras, accidents at intersections went back up. That's why a rising number of jurisdictions are turning to the technology. Last month, Raleigh, N.C., approved deployment of cameras at 15 intersections.
The cameras will not only deter red-light runners but also keep offenders honest, says Benson Kirkman, the city council's mayor pro tem. When a car ran a red light and sideswiped him 20 years ago, the driver initially apologized, then claimed the light was green once an eyewitness left the scene. With a camera, such high jinks wouldn't work, Mr. Kirkman argues.
Nevertheless, the technology has run into controversy. A retired woman in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., got a $50 ticket for running a red light in Fayetteville, N.C., even though she'd never visited that city. San Diego suspended its program after residents complained the private contractor running the program was overzealous. The city has since started paying the contractor a flat fee, rather than a portion of each ticket generated.
But a hodgepodge of state laws is only beginning to catch up with the technology.
Washington State is now pushing to toughen its standards after the state supreme court ruled, to many people's astonishment, that videotaping up women's skirts in a mall did not violate the state voyeurism statute.
Even operators of approved video cameras may be using the technology to ogle women or capture images of actions that, while legal, are compromising, critics say.
"As things stand now there's no federal law against video cameras. There are no guidelines in place about what can be done with the images," complains Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "We run the risk of technology running amok and putting people's entire lives on film."
There are other sides to the equation, of course. For one thing, Big Brother isn't lurking around the corner. "We're not being watched by some conspiratorial government, we're watching each other," says Ken Goldberg, a professor of operational engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Beyond Webcams," a book on remotely guided robots. The surge in surveillance "definitely is going to erode some elements of privacy and increase elements of paranoia that go with that. On the other hand, having the control in the hands of private individuals may be a good thing."
Last month, Mr. Goldberg wired his own house with off-the-shelf security cameras. "Hopefully, it will act as a deterrent," he says. "Is that so bad? I don't think so."
Neither do many other people in these uncertain times. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, camera surveillance has been on the upswing around the world, according to a recent joint report by London-based Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
And public outcry has been muted.
In Britain, the developed world's leader in video surveillance, many residents have accepted, even welcomed, the technology. One study, catalogued by a crime-reduction charity in London called Nacro, found that even when Britons were fed a series of antisurveillance questions, they still supported cameras by 56 percent. When fed prosurveillance questions, support tipped 91 percent.
How much cameras really deter crime remains an open question. When the Scottish Centre for Criminology studied their effect on two communities, it found crime fell in the small town but rose in the large city (Glasgow). Nacro also found mixed results. The technology seems to have a lifecycle, the charity found, initially reducing crime but often with diminishing effect as time went on.
And they reinforce discrimination in Britain - a key concern among US civil-liberties groups. The Nacro study found the cameras disproportionately target men, particularly black men.
"They are indiscriminately surveilling people," says Brown, who - besides counting cameras and giving surveillance tours - also directs the New York Surveillance Camera Players. Since 1996, the group has staged various plays in front of surveillance cameras. Sometimes the actors exorcise the technology; sometimes they pray to it, all to raise the issue in a kind of dramatic protest.
Will the US follow in Britain's footsteps? As wired as this country is, it has nowhere near Britain's ratio of cameras to people. With less than one-quarter of America's population, Britain has an estimated 1.5 million surveillance cameras (some reports suggest 2.5 million or more). But antisurveillance activists are also realists.
"I can get the subject on the mainstream political agenda, but that's about it," says Brown. "In 50 years I would hope that the movement I am building has won," he adds. If it doesn't, "I fear that New York in 50 years would become a dystopia in a sci-fi way."